Friday, May 7, 2010

Human Rights and Zambia's Prisons

Most places, prison inmates are among the least privileged people in the population. This is certainly true in Zambia. Human Rights Watch, together with two Zambian prison advocacy groups, issued a report this week on the deplorable conditions in jails and prisons here. They were called "death traps" because of malnutrition, rampant HIV/AIDS and TB, and abusive living conditions.

I had wondered about prison life when I heard that the offering we take at the monthly joint chapel service (MEF, the 2 seminaries, and the YWCA) was donated to the local prison. The money is used to buy soap for hygiene and supplemental food.

The inmates receive one meal a day of n'shima (corn meal porridge) with a watery bean sauce. This ration provides insufficient calories for a grown man. All of them must work. Some women inmates have babies and young children living in prison with them. No additionsal food is provided--they must share their mother's portion. The vegetables grown on the prison farm are sold in the market rather than being used to feed the men.

There is one doctor for a total census of 16,666 inmates. That doctor reported that over half of the health problems he attended were related to or complicated by malnutrition. Condoms are not made available, despite the prevalence of HIV/AIDS within this population.

The facilities are holding four to six times the number of prisoners for which they were designed. Cells are so overcrowded there is no room to lay down at night. The men must sleep in shifts on the floor. Because the guards are understaffed and overworked, a system of prisoner social control has developed and is tolerated. The strongest and most vicious are in charge of maintaining order. They occupy the only cots in the cells. They grant favors and protection in exchange for sex or for commodities received from family packages.

Other abuses found during the investigation included failure to provide water to the crews who worked outside in the hot sun, no pay for prison labor, and mixing of young prisoners with older, more serious offenders. Solitary confinement in one prison visited by Human Rights Watch took place in a windowless cell filled with ankle-deep water and no toilet facilities.

If families have resources, they try to supplement the diet and provide blankets and warm clothing for their incarcerated loved ones. But many inmates have no family able to help.

Life in Zambian prisons violates United Nations minimum standards that a state must observe for those deprived of their liberty. Zambia's own laws require an adequate diet for inmates, as well. We hope that the Human Rights Watch report will stimulate reform efforts to bring improved living conditions and more humane treatment for this population.

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